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Environment

Nippon Steel and Idemitsu tackle plastic waste in recycling push

Sending material overseas no longer viable in pandemic era

Of nearly 9 million tons of plastic waste Japan generated in 2018, 1.4 million ended up incinerated or in landfills. (Photo by Keiichiro Sato)

TOKYO -- Nippon Steel and other industrial stalwarts of Japan are strengthening efforts to make use of plastic waste instead of shipping it abroad.

In addition to conventional recycling, companies are tapping waste plastic as an energy source and to extract materials that can be used in the manufacturing process. These moves have been prompted by a decline in plastic waste exports resulting from Chinese regulations and the pandemic-induced downturn.

Nippon Steel will increase its capacity for reuse. The company employs coke oven batteries to process plastic waste, recycling it as a raw material for coke and extracting oil to be used in resin for sale.

The steelmaker is developing new technology to control the temperature of frictional heat generated when compressing plastic waste, for a 20% increase in processing volume. Facilities at five sites with coke batteries in Japan will be updated to lift annual processing capacity to 240,000 tons.

Oil company Idemitsu Kosan is starting a plastics reuse business. Technology it is developing will extract ethylene and other raw materials for chemical products from plastic waste, using a crude oil cracker. This will save costs over using crude oil for Idemitsu, which expects to process 10,000 tons of plastic a year. A trial has begun in Japan, with the company seeking to commercialize the business in fiscal 2022.

Cement companies are also committing to use more plastic waste as fuel for production facilities. Taiheiyo Cement plans to employ new technology for efficiently making coal from plastic and deploy dedicated equipment at nine works in Japan. Sumitomo Osaka Cement is pouring 10 billion yen ($93.6 million) into environmental efforts, including handling plastic waste, by fiscal 2022.

Chemical companies are hopping on the bandwagon. Asahi Kasei is working on reusing shampoo bottles and other containers, while Mitsui Chemicals seeks to commercialize reuse of food-wrapping film. A cross-industry consortium led by beverage giant Suntory Holdings has set up a company for reusing plastic waste.

Much plastic waste is never repurposed. Of the 8.91 million tons Japan generated in 2018, 1.42 million ended up incinerated or in landfills, according to the Tokyo-based Plastic Waste Management Institute -- 11% higher on the year and the first rise in 18 years.

Sending waste away is no longer a strong option. Japan had previously shipped 10% to 20% of plastic waste to other countries for recycling into household goods and toys. But China, which had been the top recipient of foreign waste plastic, banned much of it in late 2017, turning such Southeast Asian nations as Thailand and Vietnam into backup destinations. These countries then clamped down with their own restrictions, starting in 2018.

Japan shipped 1.5 million tons a year of plastic waste abroad until 2017, according to Ministry of Finance data. This fell to 1.01 million tons in 2018 and 900,000 tons in 2019.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic is also playing a role in limiting exports. Outbound shipments plunged sharply in April and after, with May volume coming in 30% below March levels. Besides logistics issues, the economic slowdown has hurt demand for plastic waste as a material for household goods. This has made it all the more important for Japan to build a stable recycling system at home.

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